“I think we should teach him to use his privilege to his advantage.”
It’s Sunday morning, July 14, 2013. My husband and I are talking, have been talking, will always be talking about race in our world and how it shapes our understanding of race in our home. Melissa Harris-Perry’s show is on, and she’s wearing black, and she and her guests are subdued-yet-passionate as they do a post-postmortem on that dead black boy in Florida, on so many dead black boys, on what black parents should say to their sons and daughters about dead black boys. Our son is sitting next to me playing with his alphabet game while his father and I talk about him like he isn’t there.
I am not sure where to take my husband’s statement, but the horse is out of the barn, so someone’s gotta ride it.
“Why? He’s never going to be profiled the way Trayvon was.”
And he won’t. My just-about-white-passing child is unlikely to ever have a person cross to the opposite side of the street when they see him coming, is unlikely to be followed through stores as he browses, is unlikely to wonder if a cop's behavior on a traffic stop is shaped by the color of his skin.
I know these things as sure as I know that a day will come when that sweet dirty-blond headed, blue eyed boy will have to decide whether he will see his half-blackness (and, therefore, me) as a blessing or a curse. My husband disagrees, though, and I find myself having a conversation about skin tones and shades of blackness that leaves me questioning the _facts_ I’ve long just _known_ about race in America.
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. —W. I. Thomas & D.S. Thomas
Thomas' Theorem is one of my favorites. My buddies and I used it an awful lot in college—in debate rounds, to be more specific, where this tiny bit of sociological theory often served to toss a monkey wrench into our opponents' arguments about human behavior. I was in college some 20 years ago, but it still seems a reasonable enough statement to make today. My reality—which is truly “mine” in the same way that yours is “yours” and that “ours” is the reality we’ve agreed to use to organize our lives—my reality is shaped by my perceptions, by my interpretations of the world around me, and I act on those perceptions.
So there is no “objective reality” to which we can ever subscribe, only some vague and highly personal sense of the real that we are always refining as we have more and more experience with the world and its inhabitants. Thomas’ theorem could be a reason why, for example, somebody somewhere thought that integration of schools in the USA was a good idea; one “real” way to tear down structural racial barriers (themselves a consequence of a particular set of communal “realities” about black Americans) would be to plop students into a space where perhaps they could redefine those perceptions of reality.
The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to change people’s beliefs, and even harder to do so when the individual is beset on all sides with competing versions of the real. And so here I sit in Jackson, Miss., a place where the “integrated” public education system is, 43 years after the federal government forced Mississippi to respect the 1954 Supreme Court decision in _Brown vs. Board of Education_, anything but integrated, a place where I have to endure the actually horrified looks of well-meaning white and black mothers when I tell them that my white-presenting son will be starting pre-K in the public school system this fall.
Truth be told, I sometimes find myself fighting against the call of their reality, those mothers for whom the phrase “public school system” is synonymous with failure and poverty and sub-par _everything_. I know better, know that the program we've chosen is the right one for our son, but still...perception is one hell of a drug.
The image that has haunted me all weekend is not the one of Trayvon Martin's dead body or George Zimmerman's smiling face as the verdict was read in court. Instead, I've been thinking a lot about Angela Corey's demeanor as she began the post-verdict press conference, about the way she seemed almost celebratory at the conclusion of the trial.
For a while I thought she was somehow involved with the defense. Of course, she isn't.
As my Saturday dinner guests talked about the outcome, I was fixated on Corey, whose smile and voice seemed better suited to a luncheon with donors than a nationally broadcasted press conference about a trial that she and her prosecution staff had lost. I struggled with that image, with the narrative I so easily started spinning in my head about her. I tried to make sense of it all: her clothing, her expression, the opening words that were, in retrospect, less about losing and more about having fulilled her duties by giving the public the trial it had demanded.
The lure of what I _know_ about life in this country, about race in the South, demanded that I filter her words and the words of her colleagues through the lens that so many of us must develop to get through the double-speak of our rhetorical landscape. I heard things that I'm sure no one else did, things like "We did what you wanted, so can you not riot?" and "Hope you're satisfied" and a whole lot of derogatory terms that I don't repeat in polite company. I heard a sigh of relief that it was over, that the Sanford police department and the original prosecutor had, ultimately, been shown to be right in refusing to bring charges against Zimmerman in the first place. I wondered if that had been, in some strange and perhaps vaguely formulated way, the plan all along.
I recognize that I—like the police, like the jurors, like Corey and prosecutors and the defense attorneys and the reporters and even George Zimmerman—have only have the scantest bits of information in this complicated case. I remember that we all try to do the best we can with what we know. I try to feel satisfied.
We kept talking, my husband and me, kept talking about the sort of experiences our son will have as he matures and goes out to greet the world. This is, after all, the core of a marriage—communication, continual and messy and, if you’re lucky, the antidote to your own never-perfect perception of the real. Since the day I first held him in my arms, I have wondered and worried over the realities my son will perceive and encounter. Today, I realized that his father has been wondering and worrying over that, too, and that realization has reminded me not to forget the half-white side of my son's identity equation, to check my own anger and frustration lest I teach him so well that his father—and not me—will be seen as a curse.
Anita DeRouen is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing and Teaching at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. She intermittently tweets as @anitaderouen.